“Ari shit directly on me yesterday,” my brother said. “And I looked, and there in his eye was the slightest twinkle, and I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s a Simon.’”
There’s a part of my genome, I’m sure, that’s dedicated solely to spite. Depending on how much coffee I’ve had on any given day, I think about it either as The Spite Gene, or The Fuck You Gene. It’s a familial trait, as far as I’m concerned, but it seems like only my Dad inherited it from his Dad. All of my uncles and aunts on the Simon side seem to be very lovely people who aren’t driven solely by spite, but for whatever reason, my pops inherited it and passed it down to my brother and me.
I bring this up because this past Sunday, I watched Whiplash. It was fantastic – and not for the reasons you’ll hear from other people. Yeah, JK Simmons was great, and the music was brilliant, and the pacing was spot on, and the cast was inspired and – okay, it was fantastic for the reasons you’ll hear from other people, but also because the protagonist seems to be, like me and my brother and my father, driven by spite. Funnily enough, the protagonist is also Jewish. I don’t know if that was typecasting, or just a personal quirk written into the character, but it was a nice connection.
Anyway, the reason I bring that up is because the story centers around this kid going through an intense program presided over by a sadist. In many ways, it’s Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard, but in some ways, it’s worse. Think about it, you expect drill sergeants to be awful. That’s what they’re paid for. But music is supposed to be uplifting and human and everything good in the world – and music teachers are supposed to be encouraging the next generation of greats, not throwing chairs at their heads!
As to that second point, I don’t think anyone actually believes that. Musicians are pricks. Beethoven drove his nephew to attempted suicide. Rock is full of drug-addled assholes. The blues is so full of leery, dirty sex that it’s surprising you don’t get syphilis after listening to a Robert Johnson song. (Not to mention anything by Lucille Bogan. Good Lord.) Jazz, apparently, is chock full of abusive psychopaths – which, I guess, isn’t too surprising. Jazz figured heavily in On The Road, and Kerouac wasn’t a shining beacon of ethics. Does that make the music bad, though? Of course not. The music’s music. And just as GWAR doesn’t inspire people to go murdering others, jazz doesn’t inspire people to throw cymbals at neighbors or coworkers. However, it’s not surprising that you have the greats acting like they did: Music’s primal, and in order to be one of the greats, you almost have to tap into and embrace that primality of music.
So, the idea that Fletcher (JK Simmons) is a riotous asshole shouldn’t surprise people, but it sure as hell makes for an interesting hook to a movie.
But really, the thing that hit me about Whiplash was the protagonist’s drive to succeed. The guy could have given up, but he didn’t. And where did that drive come from? Not from some external source – certainly not from his father, who wasn’t exactly all about supporting his son as a musician – but from inside. And what was that source of drive? The Fuck You gene. Neymann isn’t some schlub who has to be picked up by his girlfriend (he didn’t have one long, because he dumped her because he was an asshole) or friends (as near as we can tell, he didn’t have any), but because some voice deep inside him heard Fletcher’s criticisms and said, “You know what? Fuck you.” And from thence, Neymann decided that he would be one of the greats even if it physically destroyed him.
And something about that connected with me. Well, scratch that, I know just what it was: My personal “Fuck you” moment came in grad school, as I was being told that my writing just didn’t work and if I kept it up, I wouldn’t pass the program. This wasn’t Justice Trio-level stuff I was writing, either: This is stuff that has been well-received by people other than my parents! So, I thought the key phrase, and kept churning it out. I wrote like a madman from October to June, far surpassing the required word count (“You want a novella for a Master’s? Fuck you, you’re getting a novel.”) and churning out something that outside readers said was good enough for an Merit degree at Kent. Yeah, it’s not Oxford, but that’s leagues better than getting failed out of a program for going against what I know is my style, and what I know is what I write well. And I hold on to that moment not out of personal spite (partially personal spite), but out of professional spite – because the purpose of an MA or an MFA in writing isn’t to churn out Jonathan Franzen clones, but to make good writers better in their own genre.
That idea, that the best way for me to get inspired is to go against the grain of what I believe is right, is why I don’t have any freakin patience for feel-good woo spread around by sites like Upworthy, or Buzzfeed, or any number of bizarre offshoots that slap a semi-inspirational quote on a semi-inspirational photo and call it insightful. The world does not run on good vibes. The world is fueled by humans, the majority of which are too wrapped up in their day-to-day existence and egos to acknowledge anyone’s idea of the greater picture – most of all, their own. To slather sugar on a piece of shit idea and call it smart is insulting to anyone who got to where they are without an entire cheerleading section on the sidelines. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have that, but to be fueled entirely by that is self-delusion and self-denial of the grandest scale.)
In order to be successful in whatever you practice, you have to be willing to smell the sewage as well as the flowers. The Buddha may be a fresh breeze, but the Buddha is also a shit-stick. So, what do you do? Do you focus entirely on negative feedback? Well, no. That way lays self-destruction and annihilation of whatever social structure you might otherwise build around yourselves. But you have to embrace the anger not as a friend, because that’ll then turn it into not anger, but as an enemy you have to surpass. The world is a stage, says the bard, but every play needs a villain for the protagonist to overcome.
So, in my day-to-day, when I’m looking at something in front of me, I know I’m most successful if it’s something I want to do and think I can do, and someone tells me that I shouldn’t. I need that something to look in the eyes and go “Fuck you” at.
And when my brother told me that story of his baby son seemingly purposefully shitting directly on him, I knew: That kid’s gonna be someone.